By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Philharmonic; James Conlon, conductor; Vadim Repin, violinist
• Mussorgsky (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov): Scherzo in B-flat
• Mussorgsky (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov): Festive March from Mlada
• Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1
• Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Last performance: Today at 2:00 p.m. • Walt Disney Concert Hall
From 1989 to 2002, James Conlon was General Music Director of the City of Cologne, Germany, a post where he was simultaneously Music Director of the Gürzenich Orchestra and the Cologne Opera. Barring a calamity, that won't happen in Los Angeles in the foreseeable future, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic has managed to fit Conlon into its schedule (and vice-versa) at least once each season.
Among his many talents, Conlon is a workaholic. On a weekend when he is conducting performances of both Otello and the latest episode of his cherished Recovered Voices project with Los Angeles Opera (where he's in his second season as music director), Conlon has also slipped in three Philharmonic concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The Phil knows a good thing when it sees and hears it, so they'll take as much of the 57-year-old New York native as he's willing to give. He builds interesting programs and (as does its L.A. Opera counterpart across 1st St. in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) the Philharmonic plays very well for him.
Case in point was last night's Disney Hall concert. Conlon, every the proselytizer for neglected pieces, exhumed two short works by Modest Mussorgsky, as arranged by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and gave them their L.A. Phil premieres. Although well-played, neither seemed likely to break out of their obscurity.
Even those who came primarily for Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 after intermission had to be bowled over by the performance of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1. Born at a time when Shostakovich was (once again) in trouble with the Russian authorities, this is a brooding, complex work with the accompaniment almost always using the instruments' lower registers, leaving the soloist to occasionally soar above them. Even the scoring is dark: Shostakovich used no trumpets but included a bass clarinet, contrabassoon and tuba to add depth.
Russian violinist Vadim Repin was the soloist. Although others may command a silkier tone, the 36-year-old Siberian-born Repin captured most of the brooding nature of Shostakovich's anguished first movement and then tore into the pyrotechnics that permeate the other two sections. It seems impossible to believe that anyone — soloist or orchestra - could play the final movement any faster. Afterwards, my wife summed things up perfectly: "It's amazing that (a) someone could write the piece and (b) someone could play it." Repin received a prolonged ovation not only from the audience but also from the orchestra members.
What does one say about Tchaikovsky's fifth that hasn't already been said:
• That the L.A. Philharmonic is able to maintain such a high level of quality without much rehearsal and with a guest conductor speaks volumes about where it has come in the past two decades. It wasn't always that way.
• Conlon played the four movements almost without pause and barely hesitated at the big break that precedes the final coda. On a night when colds and flu had many in the audience coughing, this was dirty pool, as most people were doing their best to wait until the end of a movement to cough.
• Conlon reveled in the piece but didn't wallow in its excesses. His conducting and Disney Hall's acoustics allowed the orchestra's wind principals and Principal Horn William Lane to shine through beautifully.
• The final movement began with very fast tempos and got faster as things progressed, finishing at nearly break-neck speed.
• In a brief talk before the two Mussorgsky pieces, Conlon said that each of the three composers on the program was trying in his way to infuse the Russian soul into his music, noting that Mussorgsky was a revolutionary, Tchaikovsky used classical forms that harkened back to Haydn and Beethoven, and Shostakovich wanted to preserve the Russian cultural soul while discovering new forms.
• Conlon also called the three men on the program "THE great Russian composers," a pretty broad claim considering that the "others" would include Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.
(c) Copyright 2008, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.